Just over two years after The Way Back decamped to Tennyson Street, a new neighborhood restaurant opens its doors Thursday in the cocktail cult favorite’s original West 38th Avenue space.
That new restaurant, American Elm, is the brainchild of Bob Reiter, a restaurant industry vet who moved to Denver around two years ago with plans to start his own place after previously spending around a decade working in food and live music in New York.
It was in New York that Reiter says he found his inspiration for American Elm, which he describes as his attempt at creating a true neighborhood restaurant and bar that will give West Highland its own version of the relaxed classic American bistros he once frequented in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.
“Williamsburg was such a diverse place back 10 years ago and my wife and I loved these places there that somehow managed to create an environment where everyone was comfortable,” he said. “They were inviting, honest, neighborhood sort of places but did a really elevated job of service and with curating a bar program as well as on the food side.”
Reiter charged chef Brent Turnipseede, who was most recently an executive chef at Guard and Grace, with crafting a menu of approachable neighborhood food that would befit the establishment he envisioned. That meant bar classics like oysters ($2 each), deviled eggs ($7) and chicken wings ($13) prepared with elevating flourishes.
The country fried mushrooms ($12) , for example, are made with fontina fondue and crushed hazelnuts while the pieces of crispy pork belly ($12) contain grilled Palisade peaches and come garnished with pickled onion and cabbage.
It is the possibility to use Palisade peaches (also showcased in the Roasted Peach Napoleon dessert) as well as Colorado watermelon, corn and other locally sourced ingredients that particularly excites Turnipseede, who said diners can expect a menu that will evolve not only in response to the seasons but also neighborhood tastes.
“I’m excited about the intimacy of this place in comparison to a lot of my experiences in my career,” Turnipseede said. “We have less than 100 seats so I think we are going to be a lot more capable of making adjustments to please our audience, which really is this neighborhood.”
The menu of main dishes is also heavy on bistro classics such as steak frites ($26), a ribeye French dip ($16) and roast chicken ($23) as well more unique offerings such as scallops seared in a roast tomato butter sauce ($25) and a Rocky Mountain trout ($26).
Reimer also tapped Poka Loka and Tavernetta alum Jesse Torres to curate a menu of cocktails with what Torres describes as “a firm grounding in execution of the classics and fundamentals.”
“We would like for anybody to come in here and have the best Old Fashioned or Pimm’s Cup or Gimlet they have ever had,” Torres said. “But at the same time we want to have something for pretty much everyone.”
To that end, Torres created a Captain’s Menu of 35 cocktails that fit into six categories with themes like tropical and tiki and playful and refreshing. Each category also contains a reserve category drink made with a premium liquor, such as the Old Fashioned made with Joseph Magnus 12-year-old bourbon ($24 vs. 11 for the regular Old Fashioned).
However, Torres said each bartender will also work with customers to craft custom cocktails for them if they prefer. There is also a selection of beer and wines that Torres said were chosen with an eye toward pairing them with the restaurant’s dishes.
The interior of the renovated restaurant feels understated and is heavy on black and wood surfaces. However, that sense of aesthetic simplicity serves to draw attention to the old elm tree that looms over the backyard-like patio, providing not only the establishment’s name but its grounding in the West Highland neighborhood it seeks to serve.